If I estimate it would take an hour to walk from A to B, there is no question, I will walk it. For two years, my daily commute to work is roughly 50 mins. That means commuting on foot has now become my norm. Being a Londoner, I am fortunate that I can pretty much walk everywhere. And whatever the weather, yes, even when it is tipping buckets outside, you’ll always find me trooping along.
It seems that I am one of a diminishing group: walking as a means of getting around has been in decline in England since the mid-1970s. Almost daily, news articles remind us about our worryingly sedentary lifestyles and ever diminishing levels of physical activity.
However, the British government has a long-standing interest in promoting walking, believing it to be the saving grace for an inactive population.
Walking is, after all, the easiest form of exercise: it is free, does not require any specialist equipment and can be easily incorporated into everyday life. It is therefore deemed the most accessible means to boost our activity levels.
A national policy framework is believed to be critical to get the population moving, unfortunately the UK government has not been able to implement one.
It was so short lived that the target of getting two million people active was dropped even before the Olympics took place.
Despite growing research evidence on the health benefits of walking and data on decreasing activity levels, walking campaigns dilly-dallied around becoming a leading health strategy.
Since the 1990s, UK health campaigners have been keen to launch a national walking strategy. But, it wasn’t until 2004 that such a strategy emerged. This is because walking promotion could fit into the remit of a wide range of government departments: health, transport, education and environment. Crossing over so many departments made it difficult to develop a coherent and coordinated national policy.
Then came the game changer. London hosting the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games was a key motivator and driver behind the government’s increased interest. In 2008, the government announced its intention to invest £7 million into ‘innovative campaigns to encourage people to walk more’.
This was an exceptional level of commitment and investment in walking promotion and presented a real opportunity to develop and deliver large-scale interventions aimed at improving the nation’s health.
Unfortunately this level of interest and commitment was fleeting. Indeed it was so short lived that the target of getting two million people active was dropped even before the Olympics took place.
Why did it fail to mobilize support?
The glorious summer of 2012 was the beacon for a fitter and healthier nation, but according to The Guardian, we are now further away than ever.
The big question is: does a walking health campaign fall under the government’s remit? Historically, British policy emphasized the importance of individuals taking responsibility for their own health behaviors.
We as individuals should be able to take responsibility for our own health, as generally speaking, we are the only ones who can control our diets and lifestyles. After all, we choose whether to ignore or follow the health advice given to us. Yet, more and more people are offloading responsibility from themselves and pointing the blame at government for our over-indulgent and sloth-like tendencies.
Does a walking health campaign fall under government’s remit?
As with most things, timing is everything. To drive forward a policy change, it has to be feasible, have sufficient political support and be cost effective. All three factors must come together simultaneously in what is called the ‘policy window’. This may be an occurrence with a limited time scale, for as quickly as the window opens, it may close just as rapidly.
As mentioned, London 2012 Olympics seemed to be the perfect driver of this policy. Hosting this mega sporting event bolstered political interest in physical activity among the government of the day and they sought to use it as catalyst to increase physical activity among the masses.
In 2008, two walking programmes received government funding. Natural England, the government’s adviser for the natural environment in England, attained £3 million for its ‘Walking for Health’ campaign. Another smaller organisation, Walk England, received £1.4 million from the Department of Health.
The political climate was ready, but two years later political change was costly. In May 2010, there was a general election and a new government came into power. Britain was also in the midst of an economic crisis and so the government reviewed non-departmental public bodies, such as Natural England, and undertook a Treasury review of public spending commitments.
The review concluded that the ‘Walking for Health’ campaign was peripheral to Natural England’s core objectives and in March 2012 the programme was passed onto The Ramblers, a walking charity, to coordinate. Following the Treasury review, Walk England’s ‘Walk4Life Miles’ project was deemed unaffordable and not a government priority and was cancelled.
The research evidence on the health benefits of physical activity, and rising levels of inactivity, are insufficient to secure government support and investment. The scale tips more in the favor of multi-sector lobbying and joined-up political action to advance an agenda.
25 years later and still no national walking health campaign. But all is not lost. Several non-government organisations are leading the ramble. For example, Walking for Health, England’s largest network of healthy walking schemes, is improving the well-being of thousands of individuals with its 3,000 or so weekly walks.
To see what could have been, the UK needs only look across the Irish Sea. In 2002 the Irish Public Health Agency ran a successful ‘No excuses’ campaign and Get Ireland Walking initiative. So there is still hope for us to become a fitter and healthier nation.